Kids need clean air

Image: Nathan Evans

I know air quality is not great – but is this image really necessary?

I’m afraid it is. The children of Southampton deserve to breathe clean air but we are putting them at risk of growing up with stunted lungs, asthma and leukaemia. We are all affected by air pollution, but children are much more vulnerable because they breathe more rapidly and so absorb more pollutants in their growing bodies.

Air pollution in our city comes from many different sources. The most visible offenders are cars, vans and trucks. Unfortunately, young children and babies in prams are more exposed to toxic exhaust fumes as they are much closer to ground level. The good news is even small improvements in air quality can have a positive impact on children’s health. For example, in Southampton, just a 20% reduction in air pollution would mean 150 fewer children suffering from low lung function.

I thought air pollution only affected the lungs?

Toxic air has been shown to affect every single organ in our bodies, causing a range of illnesses from diabetes to brittle bones. Tiny particles of metal have even been found in the heart of a 3 year old, showing that we are already putting our children on track for heart disease in later life. Fine particles can also get into our brains, leading to dementia, depression and an inability to concentrate. Or to put it another way, cleaner air can actually help our kids to be happier and do better in school.

This is really worrying. As a parent what can I do about it?

You’re not alone – 60% of parents are concerned about the impact of air pollution on their children and there are a number of ways you can take action. In Southampton all schools have been invited to apply for help in managing the school run through ‘School Streets’. These involve timed road closures, sometimes with bollards, which stop vehicles from accessing roads outside schools during drop-off and pick up times. If your school hasn’t signed up yet, why not see if there is support for starting up something in September?

School Street at St John’s School in Southampton. Image: MyJourneySouthampton

You can also open up other streets in your community by organising a Play Street with your neighbours. After months of being shut inside during the lockdown, providing kids with safe outdoor places to play, just outside their homes, is going to be essential. To find out more, a fantastic workshop on safer streets is now available to watch here.

But it’s not safe for my kids to cycle to school, I’d rather drive them there

Having a high volume of cars on the roads makes it dangerous for everyone to get to school. But there is safety in numbers – the more people that walk, cycle or scoot, the safer our streets will become. Southampton residents can now make suggestions for improving city streets on an online map and request local traffic filtering. Many schools are offering bikeability training and incentives for active travel. Ultimately we need to change the way society sees the school run. We think it’s unacceptable to smoke in front of our children, so why is it OK to drive dangerous polluting vehicles right up to the school gates?

OK, but I need to get to work, there isn’t an easier way to get the kids to school

We hear you. The burden is mainly on women to do the school run and as a society we need to start to talk about how to bring more equality to this, and all other aspects of childcare. More people have started working from home since lockdown – perhaps this can be the start of a discussion of how we structure our work and home lives so that the school run can be both more equitable and sustainable.

What’s the impact of School Streets on their communities?

Amazingly positive! From 4 trials in Southampton92% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that the road felt safer to use” and almost everyone wanted them to happen more regularly.

And did you know, having several School Streets in one area can actually make traffic evaporate? A study in Edinburgh across nine primary schools resulted in two thirds of car trips disappearing altogether. This is because in low-traffic neighbourhoods people make different choices about getting around, no longer relying on their cars. Safer streets, stronger communities and happier children are all within our reach.

We are really excited to present the ‘Air Pollution Breaks Hearts’ artwork above, created by Nathan Evans as part of our RSA-funded pilot project looking at arts engagement for cleaner air. The original plan was to explore engagement via bus shelters but the change in public transport use during the pandemic has meant we’ve had to rethink things a little.

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